On data permanence, On the Media

A great On the Media radio story I heard today discusses the problem of old newspaper articles haunting sources or subjects forever, due to the permanence of data online, even long after the news in question has faded from importance. Should an arrest a decade ago, in which all charges were dropped, lower a lawyer’s chances of landing a job at a big firm? Should an article a college student wrote about Craig’s List sex make him afraid to teach fourth graders, for fear they (or their parents) will stumble across it while Googling his name?

The conclusion of the piece, by producer Nazanin Rafsanjani, reflects a shift, I think, in OTM’s coverage of this issue, perhaps because our general conception of the issue itself is changing as we all are subject more and more frequently to these online data permanence conundrums.

First this, from Houston Chronicle editor Dean Betts:

It’s an unforgiving world right now, and that’s one price that we pay for having such access, unrivaled, unimaginable access to information. My information is part of that too. Your stuff is not your stuff anymore. You don’t own it if it’s on the web. It’s out there.

And Nazanin concludes the story as follows:

Perhaps there will come a point when we’ll all have something awkward, or even potentially damaging about us on the web. And if it’s public for everyone, then maybe we’re protected by the crowd. All of us, living out our most embarrassing moments, one Google search at a time, in front of one another.

In 2007, On the Media host Bob Garfield told me that he is obsessed, not with the “permanence” of online data, but “with the convergence of permanence, irresponsibility, invasion of privacy, and malice. […I]t raises alarms, because there will be victims.”

My view, at the time, and now, is that we need not greet this revolution with fear. There will be victims, there will be suffering, but the positives will — must — outweigh the negatives. It is all a question of what sort of world we want to live in, and how we choose to live in it. We will lose much of our online anonymity and privacy, we already have, but as I wrote in 2007,

[I]n other ways we are going to gain more, as the community in which we exist extends beyond all geographic bounds, as the amount of information increases faster than the ability of the tools to analyze it, and as we find new ways to “own” and control our own data, rather than allowing others (vendors, identity providers, governments, credit agencies) to own all the data about us.

One reply on “On data permanence, On the Media”

  1. That’s why I find it absurd that some people feel the need to attempt hiding anything personally identifiable from the internet. It simply can’t be done. I can’t control what other people might post. But I CAN control what I post about myself. Since realistically no one is going to look past the first few pages of Google hits, all one needs to do is ensure that the top handful of results are relevant, interesting and useful.

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